'Intervention therapy' shows families how to force addicts to confront their own destructive behaviour. It's tough, even heartbreaking. But it works.

Addiction breakers

Imagine that your son comes home reeking of alcohol in mid-afternoon. Fine, people drink, but your child is in his twenties and this has been going on for years. He may not drink every day, but unlike other kids, when he starts he doesn't know when to stop. And he doesn't look well — there's something absent in his face; his skin is pallid. At university, he's spiralling into debt. When you ask how he is, he says he's fine. But there's no detail. You know it's a lie. What do you do?
Well, you could go to his university; try to find evidence of his alcohol abuse; attempt to control his money. You could bail him out on the promise he'll stop drinking. Safer still, you might encourage him to come home. These would be instinctive responses for any parent. But Barbara Sorensen, addiction counsellor — whose family is helping to pioneer “intervention”, one of the most successful methods of getting addicts into recovery — would suggest pretty much the opposite.

“You need to give your child ultimatums,” she says. “Tell them you will take them out of school, or that they'll have to move out of the family home unless they go into some sort of rehab. Don't pay off their debt — they need to feel the very real destructive impact of their addiction. You need to carry out your ultimatums immediately — or you're unlikely to succeed.” In the US, where the technique originated, interventions have a 90 per cent success rate. Despite this there are only a few such counsellors in Britain, and three of them are related: Barbara, her son Johan, and her sister, Rosemary Clough, are all qualified and are the only UK members of the Association of Intervention Specialists. “The process is tough, even heartbreaking,” says Barbara. “Parents have to go against their instincts, which is why it's so important to have a counsellor there — to guide the process.” Barbara should know. Her skills helped get her sons, Johan, 29, and Erik, 27, into recovery for drug and alcohol dependencies. “Johan was an alcoholic; Erik addicted to cannabis,” says Barbara. “I did interventions on them around 10 years ago and they've been clean and sober since. Addicts blame the world for their woes and they're angry. But today my sons take responsibility for themselves. They're calmer, have lots of friends and huge amounts of self-awareness.” A key aim of any intervention is to break down the denial that seems to be a universal theme — the last thing any addict believes is that they are one. After several counselling sessions, relatives, colleagues or friends each give the addict, in a loving way, an ultimatum. Whether it is emotional, financial or physical, this should threaten to withdraw support immediately unless they go for treatment. The options — a residential programme or a 12-step plan — need to be clearly defined and made available. The Sorensens know how addiction wreaks havoc and pain on those closest to an addict, and how these patterns pass from one generation to the next. “Although I didn't realise at the time, I married an alcoholic,” says Barbara,56. “He belonged to a wealthy Norwegian family — heirs to an oil-shipping business. We went partying all the time, had a big house in Oslo and houses in the country.” Then the children came along. “I wanted to stay in with them, but my husband still carried on partying,” she says. “He always drank a lot. It gradually filtered in that he had a problem.” In hindsight, and with her knowledge as a counsellor, Barbara realises it was no coincidence. “He didn't admit it until he was 70, but my father was addicted to Valium and Ativan,” she says. “Depressed most of the time, he wasn't emotionally available to us as children. I ended up with a man who wasn't emotionally available either — unavailability is all I knew.”

The pattern of addiction repeated in her children. “My husband's drinking began driving me crazy — trying to control it, I became totally preoccupied with where he was going,” says Barbara. “I confronted him and we fought. And yes, sadly, it had an impact on the children.” “
When I was eight, my parents separated because my dad was having an affair,” says Johan. “My dad bought the house next door, but I didn't know if it was to be close to [Barbara] or to spite her. Eventually, we all moved next door.” The emotional scars were inevitable. “With all our wealth, I thought I should feel happy,” he says. “But I'd often go to poorer families who would sit round dinner tables having fun and [I'd] want what they had.” Johan found his way out, aged 10. “I had my first bottle of beer,” he recalls. “It felt fantastic, like a magic elixir removing me from my head and my pain.” The drinking started in earnest a few years later. "When I was 13, we moved with my mum to a house in Surrey," says Johan. “My dad said he'd follow shortly after, but he never did. I didn't fit in at school, [because] I had a heavy accent. But then I started drinking at parties and figured out I was pretty good at it. I could build up a persona as a crazy kid, get drunk and numb my pain.” Around this time, Barbara began the training that helped save his life. “I was divorcing Johan's father and needed help,” she says. “My sister was the first of us to qualify in intervention and she convinced me to have treatment for my problems. That led to me training as a counsellor and later studying a Masters in addiction.” In the mid-Nineties Barbara realised that her sons had problems. Luckily, she knew what to do. “They were in such denial; they weren't hurting and I was powerless to make them stop. I couldn't control their behaviour — I could only refuse to support their addictions.” Finally, things reached breaking point. “Johan was looking gaunt, depressive and secretive. Erik was taking cannabis and was sitting around doing nothing and underachieving at school. Both were stealing from my daughter, Stephanie [now 22].” On 22 May, 1995, Barbara intervened. “Johan was at home and I knew I had to confront the situation,” says Barbara. “Together with my sister, we sat him down. Rosemary read out an incredibly touching letter, describing the damage he was doing to me. We felt he was hurting himself and hurting Stephanie, who adored him. If he didn't stop drinking, I said, he would have to leave the family home within an hour.” Johan's reaction was surprising. He says: “The timing was perfect. I was at my lowest ebb. At university, I was drinking every day from when the bar opened until I passed out. My health had gone down the toilet and I was £8,000 in debt. I despised myself. When my mum and aunt sat me down, I felt angry, but I was relieved. They said they loved me; just hated my disease. They'd do anything to support me, but they wouldn't help me kill myself. The compassion was so obvious, I couldn't argue with it.” Johan went to an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting in Farnham that evening and has been off alcohol for 10 years. Barbara's intervention on Erik two weeks later was also successful. After confronting him with his headmaster and threatening to withdraw him from college, he went into treatment.

So does Barbara ever blame herself for her son's problems? No, she says. “I believe addiction is genetic,” she says. "I'll always remember the way Erik, aged one, wanted sugar. He'd not know when to stop.” And while the effect on relationships is damaging, she insists no one is to blame. “We all do the best we can,” she says. “If you come from an addictive family, you know no other way.”

The past 10 years of recovery have transformed Johan's life. “AA was full of the most caring, people I've ever met,” says Johan, now a counsellor at Life Works, an addictions treatment centre in Woking, Surrey. “As soon as I walked in, I felt I'd found my home. Today, everything I have I owe to AA. I am no longer in debt, I've trained as a counsellor and have a wife and a 10-month-old baby. I can only thank my mum for getting me into recovery when she did.”

Anastasia Stephens
11 January 2005


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